California: UFW hits back at 'anti-labor' Center for Worker Freedom

August 27 , 2014

The United Farmworkers Union (UFW) has accused a group behind anti-union protests yesterday of "cynical outreach to Latinos", claiming the campaign was backed by "well-financed anti-labor groups related to America's radical right".

Photo: Center for Worker Freedom

Photo: Center for Worker Freedom

In a statement, UFW national vice president Armando Elenes alleged the initiative was to help Fresno-based Gerawan Farming avoid implementing a union contract "under which it already owes millions of dollars to thousands of its grape and tree fruit workers".

The group, led by worker Silvia Lopez and backed by the Center for Worker Freedom, sought decertification from the UFW through a vote in November, and protested peacefully yesterday in front of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) in Visalia calling for those votes to be counted.

However, Elenes has criticized the 'underwriters' of the campaign, namely Grover Norquist who it described as the " architect of last fall's Republican shutdown of the federal government" and the billionaire Koch brothers.

"In its paid media drives, Center for Worker Freedom complains that "big labor" is trying to take over farm workers’ lives at Gerawan. What’s really at issue is the big money that Gerawan owes its workers under the union contract that the Norquist- and Koch brothers-financed group is helping the giant grower avoid paying," Elenes said.

"Under contract terms set by the state mediator - not the UFW - as of July 2014, most Gerawan employees would have received approximately $1,480 each, retroactive to July 2013.

"This was to cover paid holidays and regular wage increases, reflecting a 54-hour workweek. The contract also would have handed other Gerawan workers (including irrigators, tractor drivers, and pesticide sprayers) a 2.5 percent wage increase, also retroactive to July 2013, plus 5 percent pay hikes in 2014 and 2015."

Elenes said that for around 5,000 farm workers at Gerawan, that would have translated to millions of dollars in the 12 months to July, 2014 alone.

"In February 2014, workers at Gerawan filed a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the company of not paying workers the minimum wage, overtime and paid rest breaks guaranteed under state law," Elenes said.

Center for Worker Freedom executive director Matt Patterson said between 800-1,000 Gerawan workers showed up at the protest yesterday, which was amazing to see after they had already spent a day in the fields.

"It was peaceful but very passionate. Everything went according to plan. Silvia Lopez delivered a petition to an ALRB representative, and that was a huge step forward," Patterson told www.freshfruitportal.com.

The campaigner dismissed the UFW's claims about his center, saying there was nothing cynical about its outreach, highlighting that workers had a right to choose whether they wanted to join a union and that was not "anti-labor".

"We're anti forced-labor, we think everyone should be able to join a union if they want, but we don’t think anyone should be forced to join. That’s a more accurate way of describing our position I would say," he said.

"I think our first billboard just asked them a question. It was addressed to the union and it said, 'What are you afraid of? Count the votes'. If they were super confident that they won, they would be banging the drum to get the votes counted too, so I think that’s very telling.

"I was really taken aback by her passion and her [Lopez's] devotion to this, and her co-workers' obvious trust in her and total devotion to this. There was nothing cynical about any of that."

ALRB executive secretary J. Antonio Barbosa told www.freshfruitportal.com the board was not able to comment on pending litigation, as the matter was scheduled for an investigative hearing on Monday, Sept. 29 in Fresno.

However, Barbosa was able to offer background, mentioning ballots from the decertification vote were impounded in accordance with case law because of allegations of illegal employer interference.

"All three parties (Petitioner, UFW and Employer) together filed 52 objections to the election alleging misconduct that affected the results of the election," Barbosa said in a statement.

The ALRB said its objection for a hearing was based on allegations the Gerawan had "unlawfully initiated, assisted in and supported the gathering of signatures for the decertification petition and decertification campaign".

There was then a second objection alleging disparate treatment to workers whereby decertification supporters were allegedly given preferential access to circulate the decertification petition during work time while prohibiting workers from circulating a pro-UFW petition during work time.

"The Board's hearing on the consolidated election objection and ULP, though now scheduled for September 29, 2014, can only go forward if the General Counsel has completed her investigation of this charge," Barbosa said.

"If the charge goes to complaint, then the allegations in the complaint will be heard in the hearing on election objections and ULP complaints."

Paul Bauer, a lawyer representing Silvia Lopez, told www.freshfruitportlal.com the ALRB had been secretive and would not show any evidence of alleged coercion from the employer to get workers to vote for decertification.

"We have provided evidence that these workers were not coerced, and maintain that this is just another delaying tactic by the ALRB to keep these votes from ever being counted," he said.

"These workers are so supportive of this employer and so supportive of the fight for their freedom, that they went out and gathered these declarations, where people would write under penalty of perjury that they were not coerced by the employer; they did this on their own free will, no one told them to do it, and we hope that they'll pay more attention.

"The UFW have been noticeably silent for the year-and-a-half where we’ve been asking them to explain where they’ve been for 20 years. They’re relying on tactics from the 1970s to try to rile up these workers, try to get them to fight against each other. It’s extremely unhealthy."

Related story: Farmworkers versus unions, a new fight in California

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